No, this is not a top ten of the year, nor even a fair bid at a summation of the year in movies. Itâ€™s just a grab-bag of passing thoughts teased into being by some of the films I saw this past year, and an effort to say a few things that no one else is likely to.
Australia: Instant guilty pleasure. Iâ€™m pretty sure there wasnâ€™t anyone like Nicole Kidman around in early 20th century Australia, and that no person of the time, white or black, really wanted a child of the Stolen Generation the way Lady Sarah Ashley and wily old King George both wanted Nullah. Iâ€™m also pretty sure that doesnâ€™t matter a bit to Baz Luhrmann â€¦ or to me as a viewer of his film. Throughout its considerable running time, a voice like that of the servants of imperial Roman heroes at triumph whispers in my ear that this is not a masterpiece, not perhaps even an especially good movie. Yet how can I resist its joyous celebration of the movies, how they transform and redeem us, how they enable us to contrapose what should have been to what was? Drawing from screwball comedy, epic western, epic war movie, from acknowledged classics (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Red River) and forgotten oddities (Donovanâ€™s Reef, The Devil at Four oâ€™Clock), Luhrmann gives us an infectious re-invention of his native land made in the image of what is most important to him, the movies. â€“And what a joy to see again, together, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, and David Gulpililâ€”giants of the now-distant golden age of Australian film.
Changeling and Gran Torino: This yearâ€™s Eastwood two-fer underscored once again what is strongest and weakest about the vision of the man who is perhaps the last quintessentially American film maker. On the good side: a strong sense of story and story-telling, of a thoroughly visual narrative style, and of the power of an honestly observed character (Oscar nominations be damned, no performance of 2008 arrested my admiration more than that of Michael Kelly as Changelingâ€™s Detective Ybarra). On the down side: a stubborn simple-mindedness when it comes to corruption and evil. The flat portrayals of the gang members of Gran Torino and the LAPD top brass and their sanitarium cronies in Changeling reduce what might have been to something much less. On the other hand, if Eastwood is indeed the last American film maker who sees with truly American eyes, there may be a lesson for us all in his bull-headed conviction that good guys are complex personalities with a compelling dark side, but bad guys are just plain badâ€”and stupid and expendable into the bargain. Dirty Harry and The Man with No Name still battle for possession of Eastwoodâ€™s soul, and every film he makes is to some degree a new skirmish in his continuing war against the staying-power of his own screen image.